by Linda Barth
SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD
“What have I got to do to make you love me?
What have I got to do to make you care?
What do I do when lightning strikes me
And I wake to find that you’re not there?
What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I say when it’s all over
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?”
(Elton John and Bernie Taupin, 1976)
I knew she’d come looking for me. She’s the type who never knows when to give up on a lost cause, even one as hopeless as me. She still thinks I deserve one last chance, even after everything I’ve done. But I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve anything good. Why can’t she see the truth when it’s right in front of her?
I want to push her out of the way and run as far as I can from her, from all of them, even my baby. They don’t need me. They wouldn’t be sorry if I was gone for good. People like that don’t really want me. The only people who do are the ones who’ll just go on hurting me.
I wish there was some place I could hide where nobody would ever find me, where I won’t have to remember what I’ve done or who I’ve become. Where I can be forgotten like I never even existed.
But Catherine won’t let me. Even when I tell her I love Vincent.
I wonder if she knows what I did. I wonder if he told her. They’re so close, with their bond and all. Mary told me about it. I wasn’t sure I believed her at first, but it’s probably true.
He must have told her. So, why doesn’t she hate me now? How can she still want to help me? I don’t understand her.
I flinch as she gently wipes the tears and makeup from my face, smearing away my disguise, forcing me to look at myself. I know she means well. But doesn’t she know kindness can hurt as much as cruelty?
I’m so tired of this life I never wanted. Full of liars and users. Every time it seems like there’s something good out there for me, some reason to hope, it just turns out to be another lie. I don’t think I can deal with it anymore. And what’s the use anyway? I want to make all the pain go away forever. Then I’d finally be free, and no one could ever hurt me again.
I don’t know what the right answer is. I can’t figure anything out.
My head pounds and I think I might throw up. My heart races and I try to take deep cleansing breaths, the way Jordie once showed me. It’s supposed to push away the bad feelings. I try to focus on something else, something good.
I think of Father and Mary and the other people Below. They gave me a chance, and even though I ruined it, they’re willing to give me another. It’s kind of like a miracle, and I know it won’t ever happen again. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions, trusted the wrong people. Maybe this time – somehow — I can do something right.
But what if I’m wrong again, what if they can’t be trusted either? What if I go back and it ends up being just one more thing I’ll be sorry for?
Nothing makes sense anymore.
I shake my head hard and look into Catherine’s eyes. She stands and holds out her hand like an invitation she wants me to accept. I don’t know why, but I believe her. I’ll just do what she says. I have to. There’s nothing left to lose, but maybe there’s still something left to find.
I feel empty but it’s not in a bad way anymore. Suddenly I feel cleaner, lighter, stronger – at least for now. I let her pull me to my feet. We both know I’m going to follow her just like I did before.
“Is there anything you want to bring with you?”
I shake my head, but then I remember. I drop her hand and walk to the closet where I shove aside a few skin-tight miniskirts and cheap neon-colored tops, “gifts” from Derek that I paid for with pain and shame. I’ll leave them behind for the next stupid girl he’ll give them to, along with all his lies and threats.
I squint into the darkness. The small, battered cardboard box is still on the floor behind some scuffed red stiletto heels where I hid it over a year ago. I pick it up. I can’t leave everything behind.
I reach for my canvas shoulder bag and start to cram in the box, but its bent cover tears open, and the things inside fall onto the dirty, splintered floor. Before I can grab them, Catherine picks them up, an old, leather-bound book in one hand and a tarnished silver necklace in the other. I hold my breath as she looks at the hand-painted illustration on the cover of the book, and I know she recognizes its value. My heart nearly stops when she reads the initial engraved in fancy script on the locket’s face.
She looks at me with questions in her eyes. I know what she’s thinking – what is she doing with stuff like this?
“They’re mine! I didn’t steal them!”
“Lena, I never thought you did.” Her voice is meant to be soothing, but I’m not ready to hear it.
“Give them back!” I snatch my things from her and jam them deep into my bag. I can’t look at her. I’m afraid of what I might see.
“I want to change my clothes,” I mumble, wincing at the way I sound like a sullen child. “I can’t go back there like this.”
In a few minutes, I’m in an old sweater and jeans, the saved, shed skin of another life. I tie my sneakers, embarrassed at the holes in the stained canvas, then pick up my coat and shrug it on. I wish I had something other than this ratty fake fur mess, but it’s better than nothing. Kind of like me, except I’m not better than anything. I was once, but not anymore.
She’s still standing there. I don’t know why she’s not already out the door after what I just did. If I were her, I probably wouldn’t even have come here in the first place. Then, it all makes sense. She’s letting me decide if it’s time to go. If I’m ready to leave this hell behind before it really is too late.
I want to move, but it’s so hard to take the next step. What if they all hate me now? It would be better to tell her no, to stay here and let myself be destroyed. It wouldn’t take long and it wouldn’t hurt as much as facing what I’ve done, facing all of them…facing him. If I go with her, I’d just be trading one kind of pain for another. There’s no way out for me.
But once – it seems like a long time ago – I did find a way out. I survived and I kept on dreaming… until the last dream died, and I finally realized my life was filled with nothing but worthless trash. It always would be.
Now Catherine keeps telling me there’s still one dream left. How can I believe her?
I look at her face – patient, hopeful — and I see his – trusting, forgiving. How can there be people like them in this rotten world? It’s like when you’re little and scared of the dark, and then you see a tiny bit of moonlight outside your window. And you know the darkness won’t swallow you up, at least not tonight. Maybe that’s who they are – a light in all this darkness. I don’t know what to think…could there really be one more chance for someone like me?
But it’s not just me anymore. I think of my baby, and I miss her so much it breaks my heart. I want her back, but she deserves so much more than I could have given her here in this world. She has a wonderful home now, she’s safe, she’ll grow up happy. She’ll never have to live the way I did. I almost smile as I realize I finally did something right when I left her there, when I gave her a chance to know what a real home could be.
And I wonder if maybe it can be my home, too, a place where finally I can be safe and happy. Maybe it really isn’t too late.
I can’t give up this chance. I’m not that stupid.
I take a few deep breaths. “I’m ready now. Let’s go.”
The door swings shut behind us. I don’t bother to lock it. There’s nothing there worth saving anymore.
Catherine pulls the car into a parking spot in an underground garage. I’d stared out the window at the lights and people and traffic while she drove us uptown, trying to ignore the soft leather cushions, the waves of heated air, the memories of the last time I was in a car like this. I told myself stories so I wouldn’t think about all that. It almost worked. But I don’t start breathing again until I hear the lock on the door click open and I can get out.
“Where are we?”
Catherine points toward a door in the far wall behind rows of high-priced cars. “We’re underneath the building where I live. That door leads to a stairwell. It’s only three flights down to the sub-basement where there’s a hidden entrance to the tunnels.”
I look around, but there are no other people nearby, no other cars moving down the ramp into the garage. I think we’re safe, so I follow her, wondering if she realizes it probably wasn’t a good move to let me know where she lives or how someone could get into the tunnels. She stops and looks at me. “I trust you, Lena. I know you won’t tell anyone.”
She’s right. I’d never tell their secrets, and I don’t think anyone could figure out where I’ve gone. But what if somehow Derek finds out? I refused to work as much after I found out I was pregnant, even though he said some men would pay more. He even said he’d give my baby a good home. I knew what that meant. I feel my stomach churn; one more thing I need to find a way to forget.
But I can’t forget what Derek might do, what he has done. When he agreed to take me back two nights ago, he said it was only because I still owe him. A lot. I don’t have any money, but he has other ways to make people pay.
It’s like she can read my mind. “Don’t worry about Derek. No one knows you’re here, and he won’t be able to find you. You’ll be safe.”
I wish I could still pray. If I could, I’d pray Catherine is right. “But I still owe him and he won’t forget about it. He expects me to pay him back, even though he’s already got a few new girls who’ll make a lot more for him than I ever did. He always said I was pretty useless, and he only kept me on to be kind.” My harsh laugh echoes in the empty stairwell. “Maybe he’ll be glad I’m gone again.” I start to feel more hopeful, but it doesn’t last and the fear slams back. ”What if he finds out you helped me? You don’t know what he’s like, Catherine, what he can do.”
She stops and turns so quickly I almost crash into her. “Lena, he won’t find you. No one will. You need to trust me on this, okay?”
“Okay,” I whisper, “I trust you.” I hope she knows I mean it. And I hope she’s not wrong.
A few minutes later, I follow her down a metal ladder. I wonder how it got here. Maybe he put it there so Catherine can get to the tunnels easily. That must be it.
I hurry to keep up with her as she walks through an opening in a brick wall. I see a light flickering farther down the tunnel, and I think about all those candles, the way one would always burn through the night so I never had to wake up in darkness. We start to walk toward the soft glow, and I can see a shadow moving within it. I know who’s waiting for us.
I stumble on a rough patch in the floor, kicking up dust as I try to keep my balance. Catherine reaches for me just in time. She sees I’m all right, so she lets go of me and continues walking, but I grab her arm hard.
She doesn’t flinch, even though I must be hurting her. I can’t do that again, so I let my arm fall to my side and I stand there like a broken doll. Then the words burst out of me. “I don’t think I can do this!”
She reaches for my hand and holds onto it like she’s not going to let go. “You can, Lena, I know you can.”
“How?” I whisper. “How do you know?”
“I know because you’ve already proven how strong you are. You haven’t given up, you still have hope. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have come back here with me.” She grips my hand tighter, and I know she’s going to make me keep going toward the light, toward him.
I won’t move. I can’t. “You don’t understand! Nobody’s going to forgive me for what I did. They’ll look at me and all they’ll see is the whore who abandoned her baby, who tried to take your –”
She shakes her head hard. “You can start over. You have a new life waiting for you here and now. It might not be easy at first, but it’ll be worth it.” She smiles at me again, and her eyes are filled with compassion I desperately want to deserve. “And remember, you’re not alone anymore. You have a baby and a family waiting for you. We won’t ever give up on you.”
I can’t fight her anymore. I don’t want to. “Promise?”
She nods. “I promise.”
I take a deep breath, let go of her hand, and start walking slowly. Part of me still wants to run away, but I know I won’t. If she can believe in me now, after everything I’ve done, then I have to find a reason to start believing in myself again, too.
Even though I keep my head down, I can see the light is getting brighter. I know it will burn me, but I keep going. One more step, then another and another. But suddenly something feels different, and I look back over my shoulder. Catherine is waiting several feet behind me. She nods again, urging me to keep moving forward, knowing I need to do this on my own.
So, I do.
He’s right there in front of me now. I look up for only a few seconds, but it’s long enough to see he’s holding my baby in one arm and a torch in his other hand. The golden light glistens on his face. He looks like a prince or a warrior or maybe both. Or a gallant knight who’s come to the rescue, just like in my book.
But I can’t look into his eyes. Not yet. I reach for my baby, and as soon as I hold her, I feel our hearts touch and I know I will never let her go again. Never. I will be strong for her. I will be brave. Things will be different this time. I promise I won’t make the same mistakes again. I wish I could walk away with her now and tuck her into bed and sing her a lullaby by candlelight.
And I will, but I can’t resist this light, his light. Like Nana used to say, I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I look up at him again, and it’s like looking at a dream. A dream that’s real. My heart pounds harder as he stares back at me. He looks so serious, but his eyes are warm, just like I remember. There really is a connection between us. We both know it.
But it’s not the one I’d wished for. And it never will be…still, it’s enough. It has to be. “Thank you,” I whisper. There’s so much more to say, things I have to explain before it’s too late. I try to find my voice, and then I hear his.
“Welcome home, Lena.” That’s what his voice sounds like – home — just like the tapping on the pipes, the crackling of the torches’ flames, the memory of children singing Christmas carols. Home. When did it start to feel that way? Was it right from the start when Father told me I could stay? Did I already know in my heart I was home at last?
I can’t screw this up again. There are things I have to tell him, tell her, but I struggle for the words. And then I see his eyes shift and look past me and I know Catherine has joined us.
I watch while they gaze at one another as if no one else exists, and my heart breaks a little more. That last, tiny, stupid spark of hope dies in my heart. I never had a chance. I won’t fool myself into thinking I ever will. But I’m not sorry I was able to dream, even though this one will never come true.
I can’t stop looking at them. And somehow I start to smile because seeing them is like seeing a fairytale come to life. This is what real love looks like. The chance for a happily ever after. I always knew that was more than just a line in a storybook.
I blink back tears. Will anyone ever look at me that way? It won’t be him, but maybe someday, someone…
In one shared motion, they turn to me. “Come, Lena.” Vincent tilts his head toward the even brighter light ahead. “I believe Mary is waiting in your chamber to help you get settled.”
Mary. So kind and strong and caring. She never made me feel ashamed or as if I had no right to be here. She had been helping me fit in, showing me how I could be a part of this amazing place. If she’s another one who still believes I’m worth a second chance, maybe it really isn’t too late. Again, the word echoes in my head and in my heart. Home. No other place ever felt so safe or right before.
They’re waiting for me to go with them, but if this is going to be a new beginning for me, there are things I have to say first. Things that can’t wait.
“Lena? Is everything all right?” I hear the worry in Catherine’s voice. I don’t want her to think she was wrong about me after all.
“I just need to talk to you – to both of you – about something.” I’m surprised my voice isn’t shaking. “It’s important. I want to tell you –”
“Lena!” A mother’s warm, welcoming voice keeps me from saying another word. “You’re here!” Mary rushes forward and pulls me into her arms. She hugs me tightly but carefully so as not to hurt my baby. Then she laughs, saying “I know it’s only been two days since we’ve seen you, but I’ve missed you so,” and when she lets me go, the warmth stays with me.
“I missed you, too, Mary,” I begin, then I don’t know what else to say to her.
She smiles at me with not even a hint of doubt or blame on her face. She smooths the blanket around my still sleeping infant. “So did she, we all did. Vincent told us Catherine had gone to help you. Everyone will be so glad you’re home again.” She puts her arm around my shoulder and guides me forward. “You must be hungry. I made tea and fixed you a plate of William’s oatmeal raisin cookies, and Olivia put fresh bedding in your baby’s cradle. We had her sleep in the nursery while you were gone. She was fine, but I know she’ll be happier now that she’s reunited with her mother.”
It feels like being carried along on gentle waves, sheltered and secure on the way to a safe harbor. But when we reach the entrance to my chamber, I don’t follow Mary inside. I turn to Catherine and Vincent, stopping them before they can offer good night wishes and walk away.
My bag starts to slip from my shoulder, the strap catching on my bent elbow, and the hidden book slaps against my thigh. I’m afraid the sudden movement will frighten the baby, and I think she senses something’s wrong because she whimpers in her sleep. I want to comfort her, but I can’t let them go, not yet, not until I tell them.
Again, it’s like Catherine knows what I’m thinking. She pulls the canvas strap back onto my shoulder, then rests a gentle hand on the baby’s head for just a moment, soothing her back into deeper sleep. “I understand you want to talk to us tonight, Lena, but, please, let it wait for a while. You should rest now.”
I feel my lower lip tremble. “But when? It’s important! There’s something you need to know!”
“Will tomorrow be all right?” There is it again in the sound of his voice. Safety, security, trust. I’m standing on solid rock when I’ve always had to watch out for quicksand.
“Tomorrow’s Friday,” Catherine continues his thought. “I’ll come Below after dinner, and then we can talk. How does that sound?”
I have no choice. They’re only thinking of what’s best for me. “Okay.” I watch their quiet smiles mirror one another and see again just how much they belong together. “Thank you…thank you for everything.” I turn away before I blurt it all out anyway. They’re wrong; it really can’t wait, but I guess it has to.
Half an hour later, I’m back from the bathing chamber. It feels so good to be clean again. Standing next to my bed, I try to rub my hair dry with a soft towel that’s nearly worn out and would have been thrown away up in the city, but here it still has value. I drape the towel carefully over the back of a chair and start to pull my fingers through the wet snarls soaking into the neck of my nightgown.
The rocking chair creaks as Mary rises and goes to the dresser to pick up a hairbrush, right where I’d left it two nights ago. The clothes they’d given me are still in the wardrobe and Vincent’s book is still on the nightstand. It makes me happy to know they weren’t in a hurry to get rid of everything, that they believed I might come back. It’s almost like I never left. I wish I hadn’t.
Mary gestures for me to take her place in the rocker. “Here, let me help you with your hair.” She smiles and shakes her head. “The way you’re going about it, you’ll rip some of it out at the roots.”
As she gently works the bristles through the tangles, I watch my baby sleeping in her cradle. “Thank you for watching her while I was taking a bath,” I whisper. “She looks so peaceful, doesn’t she?”
“She does,” Mary agrees. “It’s amazing how she’s sleeping through the night already. You’re a very lucky mama.”
Tears prickle my eyes, but I try not to let her see. “Yes, I know. I’m very lucky.” I almost can’t believe those words are coming from my mouth. Lucky? That’s not a word I’ve had a chance to use very often.
The brush begins to glide more smoothly through my hair. The sensation is so soothing, so comforting, I could almost fall asleep, but it ends too soon.
“There, that’s much better.” Mary pats me on the head and returns the brush to the dresser. “You should try and get some sleep now. Is there anything you need?”
“I don’t think so,” I whisper. “Thank you so much, Mary, for everything you’ve done for me.”
“I’m glad to be able to help out, dear.” Mary’s smile widens. “And by the way, you don’t have to whisper in front of her. It’s better for babies to hear normal, everyday sounds so they become accustomed to them, especially voices.”
I feel my cheeks redden. “I didn’t know…there’s so much I don’t know.”
Mary rushes to pull the wooden chair over to face my rocker. She drops the towel on the floor, then sits and reaches for my hands. “Lena, you’re still very new at this. Why, your baby is only six weeks old. You’ll have years together to learn about one another.”
I shake my head. “I just don’t want to keep messing up with her. I want to be a good mother!”
She squeezes my hands. “And you will be. You love your baby – anyone can see that – and you’ll do what’s right. You’ll be surprised at how much will come naturally to you, and when there are things you need to learn, well, there are plenty of us here to help you.”
My heart lightens a bit at her words. “Like you and Olivia and Father?”
“Yes, and many of the others, too. You’ve seen how Brooke is a wonderful help to me in the nursery, and Samantha is always happy to lend us a hand with the little ones.” She laughs softly. “You might find you have more help than you want!”
I start smiling, too. “I don’t know about that. I think there’s always going to be something I need to learn.”
“It’s true for all of us. You know the old saying – you learn something new every day. Well, I’ve been around for quite a while, and I’m still learning new things all the time.”
That kind of surprises me. Mary seems so wise, like there’s nothing she doesn’t know, so I ask before I stop to think I might be prying. “How do you know so much about babies?”
She gently lets go of my hands and leans back in the chair. “When I lived up in the city, I was studying for my nursing degree, but I had to leave school after only a year.” A shadow passes over her face, and I’m already sorry I asked. “So, I learned most of what I know right here in our community.”
She looks down at her lap, and it seems like there’s something more she might say, like she’s trying to decide if it’s the right thing to do.
When she looks back at me, I’m sure I can see a hint of tears in her eyes. I feel horrible for upsetting her, but before I can say anything, she goes on. “But like you, Lena, I was very young when I started learning about babies. It was when my own child was born.”
“Your own child?” I echo foolishly. I don’t know why I’m surprised. Mary is the most natural mother I can imagine. Nothing like the one I had. Being a mother was the last thing she wanted out of life, and she made sure her daughter knew it.
I almost feel a little jealous that Mary has a child of her own. I think I was kind of hoping it could be me. And no one ever mentioned this before. A dozen possibilities leap through my mind. Brooke? Samantha? Zach? Or maybe it’s Vincent! I need to know. “Does your child live here, too?”
Mary shakes her head. “He never lived here. The last time I saw him, he was only three months old.” Again, a look of sadness shadows her face. “He’d be grown up now, a few years older than you.”
I lean forward and touch her hand. “I’m sorry, Mary, I didn’t mean to ask such personal questions.”
She pats my hand. “It’s all right, Lena. I’m the one who brought it up in the first place. I just wanted you to realize that every mother feels the same as you do those first few months, like you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t know how to take care of her own baby. But we all get through it, we learn from our successes and mistakes, and somehow things turn out the way they’re supposed to.”
I’m longing to ask her more about her son, but I know I shouldn’t. It’s none of my business, and I have a feeling if she wants to tell me more, she will when she’s ready.
Mary reaches down to gather up the damp towel, then stands and walks toward the chamber entrance. “Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”
I nod, suddenly feeling more tired than I’ve ever felt before, even right after the baby was born.
“If there’s anything you need during the night, come and wake me. I don’t mind at all.” Her voice is like a warm blanket, offering comfort and shelter.
“Thanks, Mary, I will.” I look down at my baby. “And thanks again for taking care of her for me.”
“Of course! I was happy to do it until you got back. Tomorrow’s soon enough to get her back on her regular schedule in the nursery. Of course, you can still spend as much time with her as you want or even keep her here with you at night, but try to make a decision as soon as you can. Continuity is especially important to a little one’s sense of security and well-being.”
I nod to show her I remember learning that fact from her during the few weeks I’d helped out in the nursery chambers. “I don’t want to do anything to upset her.”
“You’ll be fine, dear. Just trust your instincts and when you want help, remember all you need to do is ask.” She pauses in the doorway. “If you’d like to sleep in for a while tomorrow, I can have Brooke come and pick up the baby for her seven o’clock feeding.”
“No! It’s fine! I’ll do it!” I’m embarrassed at my outburst, but I know Mary understands I just want things to be right again.
She smiles. “Good night, Lena, sleep well.”
Not long after she leaves, I kiss my baby’s cheek, careful not to wake her, and climb into bed. I snuggle into the soft, clean sheets, under the wooly blankets and the patchwork quilts that smell of lavender, so unlike what I’d known the last two years Above. The things I left behind when Catherine first led me Below, when Father offered me a new home, a chance to start again. When I met Vincent and I dreamed new dreams.
The image of his face floats through my mind. I hold onto it for a moment, then let it go. Things are going to be different. They have to be. I know what I need to do tomorrow night.
I roll over and pull the blankets tighter. I have to get some sleep. I try the deep breathing techniques Mary and Father taught me when my baby was being born. But this time it doesn’t help. I’m dreading the morning when I have to see all the others again. What if some of them think I shouldn’t get another chance? What if someone tells me to get out and don’t come back? I’ll be able to tell right away how they feel about me, and I know some of it won’t be good.
But some of it will. Rebecca was always nice to me, and so were Olivia and Kanin and William. And the children have always been so sweet. Even Father, although I’m still kind of afraid of him, in awe I guess, but if he wasn’t willing to give me another chance, I wouldn’t be sleeping in this bed right now with my little daughter nearby.
I feel myself drifting off and I let myself go before the dark thoughts can come back again. It’ll be morning soon enough.
I’m just barely aware of someone moving quietly through my chamber, but it’s my baby’s soft giggles that make me wake up fast.
“Brooke! She’s laughing!”
“Sshhh, Samantha! You’ll wake up Lena, and Mary told us to let her sleep if she wants to.”
Samantha’s voice drops a decibel or two. “But it’s so exciting! The baby never laughed before!”
I want to laugh, too, but I feel more like crying. I almost missed my baby’s first laugh. What else would I have missed? I know the answer. Everything.
I open my eyes and sit up to see Brooke cradling my daughter in her arms, and Samantha making silly faces to get her to laugh again.,
“Oh, Lena, I’m sorry we woke you. We were supposed to let you sleep.” Brooke turns to glare at Samantha. “But someone isn’t very good at following directions.”
Samantha bites her lip, then speaks quickly. “I’m sorry, Lena. I’ll be much quieter now if you want to go back to sleep. I promise!”
I smile at her. Sometimes she reminds me of myself at that age. I’m just glad she won’t grow up like me.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “I need to get up now. And I’m really glad I didn’t miss hearing my baby’s first laugh.”
Samantha’s eyes regain their usual sparkle. “I know! That was so cool!”
Brooke listens to the tapping on the pipes in the hallway. She frowns slightly, and I hope she isn’t mad at me. I really like her and we’d kind of gotten to be friends before I left. “It’s nearly seven, so I have to hurry. The baby needs changing and feeding. I can take her to the nursery, or we can wait until you’re up and dressed, and you can do it.”
She’s not mad at me, just busy. I’m so grateful for her thoughtfulness, her kindness. Okay, this is another person, no, two more people, who don’t seem to be condemning me for abandoning my own child…or for anything else. But it’s still surprising.
They all must have known I’d run off and left my baby behind. But maybe when I came right back, they figured I realized I made a mistake, so they’re just letting it go. That’s possible, right?
But none of them would ever forgive me for throwing myself at Vincent the way I did. I’m confused. Everybody I’ve talked with so far been really nice, just like they always were. Aren’t they mad at me for what happened in Vincent’s chamber?
It hits me like a bolt of lightning. I bet they don’t know! It must be only Vincent and Catherine who know. My heart feels ten times lighter. Running away was bad enough, but at least they’re not thinking I’m a bitch for trying to steal Vincent away from Catherine. Like Nana always said, be grateful for small mercies. Except this one isn’t small; it’s huge.
My baby starts to whimper and squirm, and I realize Brooke is waiting for my answer. I think I’ll ask her to wait while I get dressed, so we can go to the nursery together. I really don’t want to run into anyone else by myself. But I’m taking up too much of her time and she has work to do. I don’t want her to get mad at me. And I promised I’d be brave. It’s time I start keeping my promises.
“I want to take her myself, but it looks like she needs to go right now, and I still have to get dressed. I don’t want to mess up her schedule. Mary said that’s really important.”
“It is. So, why don’t we do this? I’ll take her and get her cleaned up and fed, and then after breakfast, you can come to the nursery chambers. I’m on duty all morning, and I could really use your help.”
“That sounds great. But I’ll go right to the nursery after I get dressed. I’m not really hungry.”
Samantha’s eyes widen. “You have to come to breakfast! Geoffrey was on kitchen prep last night, and he told me we’re not having oatmeal today. William’s making pancakes!”
I can’t walk into that big room full of people all on my own. Not yet. I have to think of something to say that won’t hurt her feelings.
Brooke makes a point of shifting my wriggling baby. “I really have to get this one taken care of. Sam, why don’t you wait while Lena gets dressed, and then the two of you can go to the dining chamber for breakfast together? Lena can come down to the nursery after that.”
“Sure!” Samantha turns to me. “You really shouldn’t miss out on pancakes!”
I can’t help smiling at her, and I feel a rush of gratitude for Brooke’s understanding, too.
“Sounds like a plan!” I untangle myself from the bedding and remember to shove my feet into slippers before they touch the cold stone floor. I give my baby a kiss and am so pleased to see it makes her stop wriggling and whimpering for a moment. I want to think it’s because she knows I’m back and I’ll take care of her, I’ll be there for her again. Always.
I start to thank Brooke, but she’s already hurrying out the chamber entrance. “See you later, Lena!” Then she pokes her head back around the entryway. “Can you bring me some coffee when you come to the nursery – two sugars and some milk?”
“Sure!” I yell, making sure she hears me. That’s the way I like my coffee, too, not that I usually had anything more than a cheap cup of it for breakfast. Sometimes that’s all I had for other meals, too, especially on nights when there wasn’t a lot of work. Not enough money meant going hungry. More times than I want to remember, it also meant a beating.
I shove the memories away as I turn toward Samantha. “It’ll only take a minute and then we can go grab some of those pancakes, ok?”
She smiles happily. “I’ll wait for you right outside in the hall.” She heads toward the doorway, then pivots back for a moment. “If you hear voices out there, it’ll be Jasmine and me. I told her I was helping Brooke with your baby this morning, and she’s probably looking for me. We’ve got something we’re working on.”
I know what it’s like to have a best friend to spend time with. To do all the little things that make up a day. Someone to laugh with, to make plans with, to trust. Until everything changes. I don’t want to, but I see Jordie getting into that car. He waves once and then he doesn’t look back.
Stop! No more.
I smile back at Samantha, thinking again how happy I am for her. But as I watch her skip out of the chamber, a darker thought comes to me. When I was ten, I never thought my life would turn out the way it did.
A few minutes later I’m hurrying to keep up with two girls anxious to get in line for pancakes. I don’t know why they’re not out of breath from talking so much while we’re practically running down the passageway.
“Did you think of a name for your baby yet?” Samantha asks. “If you tell us, we won’t tell anyone else.”
“I have a few ideas. I was thinking about naming her after my grandmother, but I haven’t decided for sure.”
Jasmine laughs and rolls her eyes. “Well, you better decide quick, or I bet Father is going to decide for you!”
Samantha grins at both of us. “And trust me, you don’t want that to happen!”
That kind of worries me. There’s no way I’d argue with him about anything, but I remember the other names he came up with. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’m not calling my baby Imogen.
I need more information. “What do you mean?”
“Didn’t anybody tell you we always have a Naming Ceremony for a new baby? Usually it’s when the baby is a few weeks old. Olivia and Kanin couldn’t agree on a name for over a month, and Father was running out of patience.” She tries to stifle a giggle. “Luke was almost named Horatio!”
“Your baby is already twice as old.” Jasmine reaches out to pat my arm. “And we can’t keep calling her Lena’s Baby forever.”
I nod. “You’re right. But tell me more about the Naming Ceremony. I only heard a little about it. It’s like a party and the baby’s name gets announced, right?”
Jasmine smiles up at me. “I’ve only been to one so far, but they’re really great. William bakes a big cake, and the baby gets lots of gifts. Right, Sam?”
“Yes, and it sort of makes it official that the baby is a member of our community. It’s so nice!” She frowns in concern. “So you really need to be ready with a name soon, Lena.”
We’ll be at the dining chamber in another minute, so I hurry to ask before the pancakes lure the girls away. “How soon?”
“Like tomorrow!” Jasmine answers. “Father told everyone at dinner last night that after you came back from getting some stuff you left in your old apartment, he’d be announcing a date for the Naming Ceremony.”
My heart swells and I know I’m going to cry. That’s why no one has thought badly of me for leaving. I can’t believe he’d do that for me. It doesn’t seem possible. But if Mary is the living image of what a mom should be, then he must be the perfect dad. No wonder everybody’s so happy to call him Father.
I can hear the sounds of dishes and cutlery and voices up ahead. There are only a few seconds left. Then, we’re walking through the doorway and my two companions abandon me for their place in line for breakfast. I see several faces turn my way.
Vincent’s not there. I’m not disappointed, I’m relieved.
“Lena, here! Sit with me and Jamie!” Mouse bounces up and grabs my hand and pulls me onto a bench as he plops down again. “Heard you came back. Saved you a place.”
I squeeze in next to him and look across at Jamie. There was always something about her that made me think we’d understand each other. She’d been nice to me, but we hadn’t really become friends. Maybe that could change, too?
“Always lots of cool things uptop. Did you get any neat stuff? Maybe some things to share with Mouse?”
Jamie raises her eyebrows as she looks at him. “Why should she? You haven’t shared any pancakes with her!”
Mouse looks embarrassed and leaps to his feet. “Sorry! Go get some right now! With maple syrup!”
Jamie grins at me. “Don’t think I’m being mean to him. I owe him one, and he knows it.” She takes a sip of her tea, then sets the mug next to her sticky plate. “Wait ‘til you hear what he did last night — which I got blamed for!”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. It’s almost like it used to be with Jordie, back when I had a real friend. I feel like the princess in one of the stories in my book, the sad girl who fell through a dark cloud into a new world full of light and laughter and friends and family. I’m no princess, but I know in my heart I’ve fallen into a much better world, and this one is real.
I’m looking forward to talking with Brooke and telling her how much I appreciate everything she did for me this morning. But when I get to the nursery chamber where the youngest babies usually stay during the day, especially the ones who don’t have parents, only Olivia and two infants are in there. I want to hurry over and pick up my baby, cuddle her and maybe make her laugh again, but I hesitate.
I’m pretty sure I figured out why no one at breakfast seemed to think anything bad of me for leaving. And if there is anyone who knows the worst of it, they’re hiding it well. But what about Olivia? I ran off for two days and left her shorthanded in the nursery. No matter what excuse Father said to cover for me, she can’t be happy about having to do all that extra work, especially when she has a little one of her own. I wish she’d notice I’m here. I wish she’d say something.
I watch her cuddle a baby boy, a foundling Dr. Alcott brought here last week. He’s all clean and rosy looking, I bet he just had his bath. Olivia settles him into his crib. He giggles as he bats at paper birds and butterflies hanging from a handmade mobile attached to the headboard. I wonder when his Naming Ceremony will be. I wonder if someone has chosen a name for him.
I hope it’s not Horatio! I let go a snort of laughter before I can stop myself, and the sound makes Olivia turn in my direction. I hold my breath.
“Lena! Am I glad to see you!” She hurries forward and gives me a hug. “I know you had some things you had to deal with Above, but we really missed you.” She lets me go and steps back. “And I’m not just saying that because Brooke and I had to take some extra shifts in the nursery.” Her smile softens her words, and I can breathe again.
I smile back at her. “I’m glad to be back. And I’m sorry I made more work for you and Brooke. I would have told you I was leaving, but it all happened kind of suddenly.”
She looks at me for a second like she wants to ask a question, but then she smiles again. “That’s all right, but if you need to take time off again, let Mary or me know as far in advance as possible. That way we can get someone to cover for you. You still want to work in the nursery, right?”
I can’t answer fast enough. “Yes, definitely! And I really am sorry about what happened.” Sorrier than anyone knows.
We walk over to the crib where my daughter rests, drowsy and clean and more beautiful than I could ever imagine.
“Don’t worry about it. We were all right. But we’ll be a lot better now that you’re with us again.” She straightens the blanket where my baby has kicked it off. “Your little girl missed you, too.”
“And I missed her,” I say quietly. “I won’t leave her again.”
“That reminds me, we started her on formula while you were gone, and she’s doing fine with it. Do you want to continue with that, or do you want to start nursing again?”
I’m so ashamed. I never even thought about that before I ran away. I’m a terrible mother. “I’m not sure,” I say quietly. “What do you think is best?”
“It’s really up to you. Most babies do fine with a combination of both, formula for one meal, breast milk for another. Do you want to try that and she how she does with it?”
“Okay, that sounds good.” I try not to sound like a complete idiot. “Thank you for telling me. There’s still a lot I don’t know.”
“Well, now that you’re back, I’m sure things will go more smoothly.”
I can’t tell for sure what she means by that. Then I remind myself to stop second guessing everybody down here. Not all of them have hidden agendas like the people I lived with Above.
Olivia is looking at me, but she isn’t saying anything else. Now I’m sure she knows there was more to my leaving than Father let on. I still can’t help worrying that a few others are suspicious, too, and I wonder if I can talk it over with her. But I don’t know how to start, so I just say the first thing that comes into my mind.
“Where’s Brooke? I thought she’d be here. I wanted to thank her for helping me this morning.” I glance around the chamber as if I think she’s going to suddenly appear. “Did she tell you I have plenty of time today to work with you?”
Olivia seems to relax, like she doesn’t want to get into anything uncomfortable either and she’s glad I changed the subject. Her smile seems genuine, and it makes me feel good, like she knows my heart’s in the right place. Another of Nana’s favorite sayings. How did Nana know so much about the world when she never left her home? I can still picture her on the front porch, the sunrise warming everything — the daisies in the garden, the mandolin in her lap, her faithful old dog, her twinkling eyes.
I realize Olivia is answering my questions, and I pull my thoughts back from a small town in the Allegheny Mountains to my new home. Maybe my forever home.
“Brooke, Mary, and Sarah have taken all the toddlers and the preschool kids down to the wading pool, the one by the shallow hot springs. Kanin and Vincent are meeting them there.” She grins. “You know you can never have enough help with that group!”
I really don’t want Olivia to think I’m not paying attention to her, but for a split second I can’t help but picture Vincent with his pants rolled up to his knees, smiling as he carefully splashes a toddler through the warm, sparkling water. He’d make such a great dad…
I snap myself back to reality. “That’s for sure! I can go and help them, too, if you’d like.” Not a good idea, I warn myself seconds too late, not good at all. “Or I can stay here and you can go if you want.”
“Thanks, maybe I will in a little while.” I follow her gaze toward the babies who are cooing quietly in their cribs, on the verge of falling into peaceful sleep. “Since these two are having some quiet time, why don’t you and I have a cup of tea and maybe talk a while?”
I feel my heart sink. All the warmth and light in this chamber might be gone in the next few minutes. Maybe I was wrong to get my hopes up.
I sit next to Olivia on an old couch that rests on a flower-patterned rug someone donated for the babies’ chamber. Probably a cast-off from some rich person’s house. I bet one of the Helpers brought it down here.
I glance sideways at Olivia and while I wait for her to say something, I sip hot herbal tea from the pretty china mug she’d handed me. I like the way people keep those little stoves, braziers I think they’re called, in some of the chambers. It makes things cozier – the heat and light from the burning coals, the spicy smell of the tea. Everything here is so much better than, well, than anywhere else.
I don’t want to risk losing any of it. But I have to find out if she knows about what I did. No pain, no gain, right?If Jordie hadn’t always said that, Nana would have. They would have loved one another. But by the time Jordie became part of my life, Nana was already gone.
Why isn’t Olivia saying anything? Is she waiting for me to start? I can’t take much more of this. My nerves are already shot. Every time I think I’m on solid ground again, something shifts.
I take a deep breath. “Olivia, was there something you wanted to talk about?”
I watch whisps of steam rise from her mug, obscuring her dark eyes for a moment. What is she thinking?!
“Not really, but I thought maybe you had something in mind.” She takes a careful sip of her hot tea, clearly waiting for me to open up. And I will, but there are a few things I need to know first. I learned a long time ago if you take people at face value, there’s a really good chance you’re going to suffer for it. And I’ve already suffered enough.
“When Father told everybody that I had to go Above for a couple of days to take care of a few things, did anyone say anything about it, anything kind of bad, I mean?”
She shakes her head. “Not that I know of. Why would they?”
I shrug, trying to act casual. “I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t tell anyone first?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know how stupid I’d been.
Her eyes narrow slightly. “You told Father, didn’t you?”
I don’t want to lie, but I can’t tell the truth, so I take a big mouthful of tea, stalling for time. When she doesn’t wait for me to answer, I can’t believe I lucked out.
“And anyway, if it occurred to anyone to wonder about it, they probably would have just assumed you didn’t know about the rule.”
“If you’re going Above for any reason, you need to tell at least three other people where you’re going and when you plan on being back. It’s part of the security system.” She smiles and it softens the serious look on her face. “Don’t worry about it. You’re still fairly new here, and there’s a lot to learn. You’ll do the right thing next time.”
“I will!” Another promise added to my list, another one I’ll definitely keep.
“And seriously, Lena, don’t get all worked up over worrying what other people think of you. We always need to work together down here so we can make sure the community runs smoothly, but just like everywhere else, most people are so busy or so wrapped up in their own concerns, they really don’t notice all that much of what’s going on with everyone else.”
“Really?” The thought seems so foreign to me. When I worked for Derek, I felt like I was being watched all the time and judged for what I was doing – by Derek to make sure I earned the required amount of cash each night. By some of the other girls so no one got caught moving in on someone else’s territory or trying to steal away their regulars. By the cops looking to arrest some of us so they’d make their nightly quota, or the other ones who were willing to look the other way if we made it worth their while. I’ll never be sorry I’m out of that life forever. There was nothing good about it, not one little thing.
Except it gave me my precious baby. And it kept me alive long enough to give me a chance to find a new home where I’d never have to worry about any of that ever again. I shake my head. No, that wasn’t what gave me another chance. It was Catherine.
“Lena?” Olivia’s voice brings me back to reality. “Did you hear what I just said?”
I’m embarrassed I was rude to her again. “I’m really sorry. I guess my mind just wandered for a minute. Could you say it again?”
“I was saying you need to realize that when people live together in close quarters like this, it’s important we value each other’s privacy. Unless some people have become very close friends, like Jamie and Mouse or Mary and Father, no one really asks a lot of personal questions. If someone wants to confide in someone else, fine, but it’s not a requirement.” She pauses as if she wants to make sure I understand her meaning.
When I nod, she continues. “I was born here, like Rebecca, Pascal, Brooke, and some of the children, but most people weren’t. They have secrets they brought here with them – well, we all do regardless – and we respect each other’s right to keep our secrets or to share them if and when we want to. We accept one another as we are now. We don’t condemn anyone for who they once were.”
I had already figured that out, more or less, during the few weeks I’d lived here. But hearing the actual words was amazing – and wonderful.
I can barely speak above a whisper. “You mean if someone did some really bad things Above, then no one is going to blame them for it Below?”
She has to say yes. She just has to.
“I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but for the most part, yes, that’s what I mean. You know, no matter where they live, everyone makes mistakes, sometimes really serious ones. But the mistakes aren’t who we are; a lot of times they’re what happened to us through little or no fault of our own.” She shrugs. “Sure, people make bad choices, too. But it doesn’t mean things can’t change for the better, if a person wants to change bad enough. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“And do people forget about what happened to them, the bad things? Can they move on?” I know she hears the desperation in my voice.
“That’s certainly possible. I don’t know if everyone forgets, but maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe remembering the bad times helps us value what we have even more, makes us do everything we can to hold onto the good, to help make our world a better place.” She hesitates and I wonder what or who she’s thinking about. “Many of the people who have joined our community did it to try and make a better life for themselves. And in doing so, they’ve made things better for everyone else, too.”
I want to be part of this. I want to help. “But how? How do they do it?”
She smiles at me. “We do it by opening our hearts to one another and doing what’s right. Giving help when someone needs it, accepting help when we’re in need. Finding something of value, some joy in every day. Appreciating what we have, not yearning for what we lack.”
I nod eagerly. “I can do that!”
“I know you can.” She pats my hands where they’re clenched on my lap. “Just don’t be too hard on yourself, okay? You’ve been through a lot in a short period of time. It’s not always easy to adjust to an entirely new way of living, but you’re doing fine.”
She stands and puts her empty mug on the table by the brazier. She bends to pick up a basket of the babies’ clean clothing and bedding. Then, she turns back to look at me. “And remember, Lena, we can’t know what lies ahead for us – nobody can predict the future. But I promise, even though there will be hard times, things always get better.”
As I stand and grab a second basket, my heart is lighter than it’s been in a very long time. I believe her, I really do, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
I hear Nana’s voice in my head. Don’t borrow trouble, Lena. How many times must I tell you that?
I’m sorry, Nana, I’ll try harder.
I spend a few precious hours with my baby, and I promise her that tomorrow night she’ll be back with me, sleeping in her own cradle. I make sure Sarah knows I’ll be on nursery duty first thing in the morning, then I start walking back to my chamber. It turned out to be a good day, tiring but so much better than I’d expected. No one said anything at all to make me think they know what really happened. Olivia was right. We’re all more concerned with our own problems than with anyone else’s.
Even at dinner, when I saw a few people I hadn’t seen earlier, no one treated me any differently than they had before. At least, it seemed that way. So, after tonight, I’m going to make sure that secret stays buried.
I still want to find a time to thank Father for what he did for me. He should know how much I appreciate it. I don’t think he likes to tell lies, but then he didn’t actually tell one for me. I did have to take care of a few things Above, and I did come back, just like he said.
A chill shivers through me. How come Father was so sure I was coming back? I thought that was all Catherine’s idea. But I’m being stupid again. How would she have even known I ran away if Vincent hadn’t told her? He must have told Father, too. And he must have told them why. My face burns with shame. I don’t want Father to know what I did that night. He’ll think I’m horrible. Or maybe he’ll just figure it’s what any prostitute would do.
No. I have to stop thinking like that. He knew what I’d been when he let me come Below to stay, but he forgave me, he trusted me to be a better person, just like he’s trusted a lot of the other people down here. He’s still giving me a chance to get past the mistakes I made, even though there were some really bad ones.
But that’s what good fathers do. They teach with kindness and open hearts. They help us instead of helping themselves. And they don’t hurt us even worse than the ways we hurt ourselves. The good fathers are the ones who are sorry when they mess up, the ones who move on and try to do better, just like Olivia said. That’s the kind of father I wish I’d had.
But it is the kind of father I have now. I don’t think I have to worry so much about those things anymore. Now, if I could only forget.
I enter my chamber and get my locket from its new hiding place way in the back of a dresser drawer. It gleams in the soft light. I’m glad I asked Mouse if he had something that would take the tarnish off. I hated to see it get spoiled.
I fasten it around my neck and slip it under my blouse, then I sit in the rocking chair. They should be here soon. I’m scared, but I need to get this over with so I can truly begin again.
I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes, but when I hear their voices outside the chamber entrance, I’m wide awake. A hot rush of adrenaline burns through me. They’re standing right in front of me now. I had pictured this all day, couldn’t get it out of my mind, but the reality is kind of a shock.
“Lena, I’m sorry if we disturbed you.” His voice is the same soft, soothing sound I’ll never be able to forget. “You’ve had a long day. Would you like to postpone our talk for another time?”
Catherine smiles that smile, the one that makes me know she only wants what’s best for me. I still can’t quite believe anyone can seem to be so kind and really mean it. “I can come Below again tomorrow instead.”
I shake my head so fast it almost hurts. “No, now is good!” My eyes flicker from one face to the other. “Thank you anyway, but I don’t want to wait.”
I look around the chamber. There’s nowhere else to sit except on the wooden chair and the bed. Plus, what if someone else comes in while we’re talking, maybe Mary or Jamie or Brooke? What if my baby needs me? I should have planned this better.
Catherine glances at Vincent and then looks back at me. “Shall we walk for a while and find a quiet place where we can sit and talk?”
For a few seconds, all I can think of is what it would have been like if I’d had a big sister like Catherine to watch out for me, to protect me. But no, I can’t wish for something like that. The same things that happened to me might have happened to her. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, let alone someone like Catherine.
Vincent nods and I try not to notice how the candlelight glistens on his long hair. I love that look, like some of the guys in my favorite bands. But the way he looks is even better than them. And his voice could put them all to shame. The voice that’s talking to me.
“It’s only a short walk to the Mirror Pool. I doubt anyone will be there now, and we can have all the privacy we need.”
We don’t talk about much on our way to the pool. Catherine asks about my day, Vincent says he’s sorry he’d been away on a work detail until after dinner, that kind of thing. I know they’re trying to put me at ease.
Soon I’m sitting on a pile of padded quilts, facing Vincent and Catherine seated opposite me. I can see the starry lights sparkling on the water behind them. I wonder where the light comes from. You can’t see stars in the sky up in the city, so why can you see them down here? Sometimes it still seems like I’m Alice, finding my way through another kind of wonderland.
I know they’re waiting for me to start talking. I have a lot to say, much more than I realized last night, and I know where I have to begin.
“It was really nice of you to agree to talk with me. There are things I need to tell you, to explain. Things you need to know.”
“Of course, we’re willing to listen.” Vincent shakes his head slightly. “But please don’t feel you must tell us anything that might make you uncomfortable. Here we honor each other’s privacy.”
Catherine nods in agreement. “And no one is judged. Some people might have strong opinions, but everyone is willing to give others a chance, even a second or third chance.” She smiles at Vincent. “I learned that when I first came Below. It was easy with some people, but it took a long time to earn others’ trust, including Father.”
Vincent smiles back at her, but I can see her words have brought some sadness to his eyes, or maybe it’s regret. “But you have it now.” He looks at me, “And so do you, Lena. We all trust you. You’ve shown you want to leave your old life behind and start a new one here. There’s no need to tell us anything more.”
My voice is quiet, but I sound sure of myself – and I am. “There is a need. If I’m going to make a fresh start here, I need the people I trust most of all to know who I really am.” I look from one face to the other. “But first I want to apologize to both of you.”
Catherine reaches for my hand and holds it tight. I can tell she thinks she knows what I’m going to say. “You don’t have to apologize for anything, Lena.”
I don’t want to lose that physical connection, but I have to do this on my own, so I pull my hand away. “Yes, I do, Catherine. I have to tell both of you how sorry I am for what I’ve done.”
They wait in silence for me to continue, honoring my request, my need. They really care about me. How did that happen? And how can I let them know how much I care for them? How sorry I am I almost threw everything away.
“You both took a chance on me. You didn’t have to, but you did. And when I screwed it up, you didn’t give up on me like anyone else would.”
Like everyone else did.
“I’m so sorry…for everything.” My eyes mist with tears, and I can tell they want to comfort me, but I have to tell them everything.
“I’m sorry the things I did upset you so much, especially after you were so kind to me. I promise it will never happen again. None of it! I won’t keep making so many mistakes!”
Catherine smiles gently. “No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, but we have to trust that those who love us will forgive us.”
Vincent looks from her face to mine. “You have a family here, Lena, full of people who will support and encourage and love you, no matter what.”
Love. How I’d longed to hear that word from him in such a different way. But I smother that thought again, knowing how glad and grateful I am to be part of a real family that truly loves me. I will never think of it as anything less than a miracle. And I will never again let myself think of him as anything other than a friend.
But it seems like they think I mostly wanted to apologize for the worry I caused when I ran away and left my baby for them to raise. I have to tell them the rest now before I lose my courage.
“There’s something else I need to say I’m sorry for.” I see that knowing look on Catherine’s face again. This time she’s right, and I start talking fast before she can try to stop me.
“I’m sorry for what I did right before I ran away.” I can see I’m making them both uncomfortable, but it can’t be helped. I have to get this out and be done with it.
I turn toward Catherine and this time I reach for her hands. “I never should have gone to Vincent’s chamber, and I never should have…done what I did. He’d already told me how much he loves you, how your hearts are connected forever.”
I can’t look at him yet, and I can’t look away from her. “In my heart, I knew what he meant. I know he’s never going to love anyone else. But I couldn’t stop trying. I couldn’t stop wanting it all for myself.” I bow my head for a moment, feeling the shame I can’t escape. And when I raise my head, I’m stunned by the understanding and forgiveness in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Catherine. I never meant to hurt you.” I finally find the courage to look at him. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you, Vincent, for putting you through all that. I had no right at all.”
He doesn’t say a word, but Catherine does. “You had hope. You reached out for something you wanted, something beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Her voice is like a soothing balm. I want more than anything to accept her forgiveness, but I don’t deserve it.
“It was wrong! After everything you did for me, I betrayed you!” I force myself to look from her to him. “How can you not hate me now?”
This time it’s Vincent who tries to ease my pain. “We all have dreams, Lena. Sometimes they come true, and sometimes they can’t be. Know that you had the courage to reach for yours…and the courage to accept that your dreams must take you on another path.”
The silence that falls around us is not full of the anger and hurt I had feared, or the punishment I deserve. I should have known they would only offer kindness and understanding. It’s another miracle I never expected would happen to me.
They have given me a gift beyond imagining. But I still have to ask for one more.
It’s so hard to begin. I hear Jordie. Just do it, Lena! What have you got to lose? And Nana. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Lovey.
I will do this for myself, but I’ll do it for them, too. I hope somehow they know.
“I want you to know how grateful I am that you’ve forgiven me…for everything…and that you’re giving me another chance to start over. I want that more than anything. I promise I won’t mess it up this time!” I take a deep breath. “But before that can happen, I have to let the past go.”
Catherine has such a worried look on her face. “I’m not sure we should ever let the past go entirely, Lena. It made us who we are, all the good things that happened and all the bad.”
I nod to show her I understand. “I know, but it doesn’t mean we have to carry it with us forever, right? We can put it behind us and move on and make a better life for ourselves and even for others.” I hear myself echoing Olivia’s wise words, the ones I so need to know are true. “That’s what I want to do – what I’m going to do.” My gaze darts back and forth between them. I can’t figure out what they’re thinking now. “You still believe I can do that, don’t you?”
Vincent is quick to reassure me. “Of course, we do. And if telling us something of your past will help you find your way, then we will gladly listen and help you move forward.”
Catherine smiles encouragingly. “And know that whatever you share with us will not be repeated to anyone. It’s your story to tell, your decisions to make.”
I whisper my thanks and then, in a much stronger voice than I could have hoped for, I begin to tell my story.
“My name used to be Amanda.” How I hate hearing the sound of it. I feel like spitting out its poison. “My middle name is Magdalena, for my grandmother, my father’s mother. Until I came to New York, only two people ever called me Lena, and I loved them both. It was their special name for me. My mother hated it.”
I try to keep a look of defiance off my face, the one that mentioning my parents always gives me.
“My Nana was wonderful. She had the most loving, generous heart, just like you two.” I blush a little when I say that, but it’s true and they should know it. “Her parents emigrated from Russia, and she was born in a little town in Pennsylvania, at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains. She lived there all her life.”
I reach inside the collar of my blouse and pull out the silver chain. The locket dangles as I turn it toward them, and I know Catherine recognizes it immediately. “This was hers.” With one finger, I trace the ornate engraved M on its face.
“You were named for her,” Catherine says. “What a lovely tradition.”
Vincent smiles at me, but again I see sadness in his eyes. “You carry her legacy, not only in name but in spirit. She lives on in you.”
I don’t know if that last part is true, but his words warm my heart anyway.
“My parents and I lived in the same town as Nana. I spent as much time with her as I could. She was always happy to see me. I always felt safe there. I never wanted to leave.” I don’t miss the worried look that passes between them, the one they try to hide. I won’t tell them how my mother was thrilled I wasn’t around much, or all the reasons why I needed to escape from her and from my father every chance I could get. How I needed to be with the only person who’d ever really loved me back.
So, I tell them something else, equally true but less painful for any of us. “Nana taught me how to play the mandolin. She had a wonderful voice, always singing folk songs her parents taught her. I felt so proud when she’d tell me I sound just like her.”
Catherine smiles at me. “I envy you. I like to sing, but my voice sounds like…well, like something you’d be happy not to hear!”
“Catherine, that’s not true. When you sang your lullaby to comfort Ellie, your voice was full of love. It was beautiful.”
I’ll never stop hoping someone will love me again even half as much as Vincent loves Catherine, as Nana loved me. I sigh softly, but I don’t think they notice.
“Nana knew I wanted to become a professional singer someday. She never made fun of my dreams.” I can feel my face tighten. “When I told my parents that’s what I wanted to do, my father was so angry. They never let me forget they were spending a lot of money to send me to a private school so I’d get into a good college. He said he wasn’t paying to prepare me for some useless profession, so I’d better get that stupid idea out of my head.”
“Did your mother understand?” Vincent asks softly. “Did she try to help you follow your heart?”
“My mother just laughed and asked what made me think I had any talent anyway.”
Catherine gasped. “Oh, Lena, I’m so sorry! I can see why Nana was so important to you. You needed that safe place.”
“And you needed her love,” Vincent added. “The kind of love we all need. Someone to help us reach for our dreams.”
I nodded. “She believed in me, so I believed in myself no matter what…but when I was thirteen, she…she died.” I wish I could stop talking now, I wish I could hide away from the past forever, but I can’t. I need to get it all out or I’ll never be able to move on. “I was all alone until I met Jordie.
“When we both were freshman, he transferred to my school, and we became friends – best friends – right from the start. I had other friends, but never anyone like him. I used to wonder if Nana had sent him to me.”
Vincent smiles but I know he’s not laughing at me. “Perhaps she did.”
I smile back at him, caught up for a few moments in what little happiness I can remember. “We would spend as much time together as we could, especially in drama club. I couldn’t let my parents know I was still singing, and Jordie kept my secret.”
And I kept all of his.
“But the next year, I was offered the lead in the spring musical. It was The Sound of Music and I was going to be Maria. I wanted it more than anything.”
“But you could not take the part because your parents would know you had deceived them.”
I nod at Vincent. “Yes, so I turned it down. But it didn’t matter. They found out anyway. I never knew how.” I hear my voice tremble with fear I still can’t forget. “They were so mad at me. They said if I had enough free time to spend on stupid, pointless things, then I could work and earn money and start supporting myself.”
“How could they say something like that? You couldn’t have been more than fifteen!” Catherine’s voice is full of astonishment and anger. Again, I think of how I’d needed someone like her even then. Of course, I’d had Jordie, but he had his own demons to deal with. The bullying, the threats, the need to hide who he was even from his own family. Oh, Jordie, I hope you’re finally happy wherever you are.
“I didn’t know what to do, only that I couldn’t keep disobeying them, so I agreed. I tried to find work I could do after school, but no one hires someone that young for a real job. Still, I kept thinking my parents must be right — I just wasn’t trying hard enough.” I shake my head at how naïve I’d been.
“I thought after a while, they’d let me stop looking and they’d find another way to punish me.” That had always worked for them in the past. “So, I was kind of surprised they kept telling me I had to do it, that I had to start contributing to the family. My father is an accountant. It’s a good job, we were always comfortable, and I was used to not having to work.”
I see Catherine nod in understanding, but I know she doesn’t. She couldn’t know the way it was for me, and I’m glad about that.
“One night my father came home and told me he’d found a job for me. I was going to babysit for his boss. I thought everything was going to be all right. But it wasn’t…it wasn’t.” I close my eyes, but I still see and hear and feel everything. The look on that man’s face, the sound of my screams, the pain inside and out. I don’t know if I can do this after all.
“Lena, it’s all right. You don’t have to say anything else.” Catherine tries to give me a way out, to silence what I’m struggling to say. But I have to tell them.
I find my voice. “What I didn’t know right away was that my father had been caught embezzling, and his boss told him he’d have to find a way to pay up or he’d lose his job. It turned out that his boss…liked young girls and I was going to be paying him back for what my father had done, for as long as he wanted me to.”
The looks on their faces are mirror images of anger and horror and pain. I hate to see it but somehow it helps.
Catherine shakes her head. I know she’s seen a lot of bad things with her job and all. It must be a lot worse when you know the person it happened to. When it’s someone you care about.
That thought gives me the strength to go on. “When he drove me home that night in his BMW, he told me to tell my parents I’d been a good little girl and he’d let them know when he was ready for another payment. I ran into the house and cried when I told them what had happened.” I shake my head. I should have known better, but I hadn’t.
“Surely your mother didn’t know of this arrangement!” Vincent’s voice is full of angry disbelief and some undying hope that somehow the story will turn out right. I have to tell him it won’t.
I take another deep breath. “That’s what I thought at first. I thought she’d take me in her arms and promise to protect me. Tell me how sorry she was this had happened to me. I knew she didn’t really love me, but I thought maybe this time, maybe just this once – I hoped –” I bite my lip. The next words are going to be even harder to say. “All she did was slap my face and tell me to stop crying. She said shut up, Amanda, and do as you’re told.”
I hear her voice in my head. I want to make her shut up this time. “Then she said I shouldn’t have been surprised about what happened. I didn’t understand what she meant, but my father explained it for her. He told me that I owed them for everything they’d done for me, and I didn’t have any right to complain about paying them back this way because I was already giving it away free to my Black boyfriend. Except he didn’t say Black.”
Suddenly I start to laugh and the sound is scary and horrible. “What they didn’t know is that Jordie was – is – gay, and up ‘til then I’d been a virgin. Too bad they didn’t know – they probably could have gotten even more money for that!”
My laughter drowns in sobs as Catherine pulls me into her arms. For what seems like a long time, I hold onto her, and I don’t want to let go.
But finally I do, and as quickly as I can, I tell them the rest of my story. How after I told Jordie about being raped, we ran away. How Jordie and I had just enough money for bus tickets to New York, where we’d always dreamed of going someday. Where he would become a dancer on Broadway, where I’d become a real singer and go on concert tours all around the world.
How quickly we learned most dreams never come true.
I tell them how our parents never bothered to look for us. How after I while I wasn’t scared anymore that they would. I started to accept the fact they weren’t sorry for what happened, for any of it, and there was nothing I ever could have done to change that. After a while, I just didn’t care anymore, and that meant their power over me was gone. It was a good feeling. It still is.
Vincent and Catherine continue to listen as I tell them how Jordie and I survived for almost a year. Busking for months on the street and in the subways, hoping and begging for coins tossed into an old shoebox by passersby, stealing food when the bodega clerks weren’t looking, sleeping in churches or doorways or on benches in Central Park, eating at soup kitchens or out of dumpsters behind fancy restaurants. And even then, we still thought a miracle would happen. That some producer or director or music executive would discover us, and our lives would change forever.
They did change. After almost a year, we were dirtier and skinnier and more worn out than we knew it was possible to be. We couldn’t go back, and it was looking like there was no way to go forward. That’s when we found what we thought were friends. Of course, they were nothing even close to friends, but even so, in their own ways, they saved our lives, Derek and his girls and boys.
Jordie was the lucky one. After a couple of months working for Derek, some rich, older man took a liking to him. He said he had a dance troupe in LA and he’d give Jordie a position with them, introduce him to important people, that he’d take care of him. Derek collected a big pay-off for letting Jordie go. I can still see that horrible grin on our pimp’s face. He told Jordie he had really lucked out and he better not screw it up or someone else would suffer what he called consequences. We all knew he meant me, but I said I didn’t care. And somehow I made Jordie believe I wanted him to take his chance. To not throw away his good luck.
Of course, by then we’d learned not to trust much in luck, but I think for once it might have been real. The last time I saw Jordie, he was in a limo with that man, heading to the airport. I can still see him smiling as he waved good-bye. I know he was sorry to leave me behind, but there really wasn’t any choice. It took a while, but finally I made him understand. One of us had to make it for both of us. We shouldn’t be sorry for the choices we have to make to survive. And I’m not. Maybe I helped save his life like Catherine saved mine.
I never heard from Jordie after that, and now he’ll never hear from me. We lost each other, but I hope he’s found what I have. That would be more than luck. It would be another miracle.
I come to the end of my story, and we’re all exhausted, but I feel cleansed, too. I’m sorry they had to hear all of this, but I’m not sorry I told them. They tell me they’re proud of me for staying strong, for never giving up, for still being able to love and trust after everything I endured. They say the words I always longed to hear. They tell me how sorry they are for what I’d been through, they tell me they love me.
And I love them.
I know now that I was wrong to be afraid they’d think less of me once I told them who I was and what I had to do. Now they know who I really am. And for the first time since I lost Nana and Jordie, I know that who I am is good enough. I don’t have to be sorry anymore.
We stand and collect the padded quilts, storing them away in an alcove for the next people who will meet by this pool of mirrored light. I hope the stories they share will be happier. And I hope their stories will end with as much hope as mine has.
There’s one last thing I need to tell them, one last thing I need to say to these two people who bothered to take the time to reach out to a stranger, to be concerned about someone like me, to care so much that they were willing to hurt themselves so they could save my life.
We walk in silence to the entrance to my chamber, and before they leave, I tell them.
I walk slowly inside and collapse onto the bed. I feel like I could sleep forever. I feel like I want to laugh and cry with joy. I feel like I can breathe. I feel like I can see a way forward to better days, a better life.
It really is true. I can start again! I can’t stop smiling as thoughts fill my head. Maybe I can help with the children’s choir. I bet a lot of the kids love to sing like I do. And maybe I could teach some of them how to play the mandolin, maybe some of the adults would like that, too. I wonder if there’s one down here, or maybe a Helper has one they would donate. And I could —
I sit up quickly and look past Catherine but she’s alone.
“I told Vincent to go on ahead. I need to ask you something.”
I nod my head. “Sure.” She can ask me anything she wants to know, and I’ll be happy to tell her. No more secrets.
“The book you brought back from your old apartment – was it your grandmother’s?”
“Yes, it was her book from when she was a little girl. She gave it to me when I was five, when she was helping me learn to read.” I stand up and go get it from the bookcase. “It’s a collection of fairy tales.” I try to hand it to her. “You can look at it if you want.”
She smiles as she shakes her head. “Another time, okay?”
I’m confused and it must show on my face because she says, “You’re probably wondering why I came back to ask you about it.”
I nod and wait for her to tell me.
“When I was a little girl, I had a favorite book, too, The Velveteen Rabbit. Have you ever read it?”
“Yes, I love that book,” I tell her. “Did your grandmother give it to you?”
She shakes her head. “I never really knew either of my grandmothers well. But I’d like to think they were as kind and loving as yours. The book was a gift from my mother, only a few years before we lost her.”
I start to say how sorry I am, but she continues talking, and I understand that’s not what she wants to hear right now.
“Then you know about the message in The Velveteen Rabbit, that when someone loves us enough, we become our true selves. Their love makes us real, and all the rest, everything that hurt us or tried to destroy us, none of it matters after all.” Her smile grows misty with tears. “I think my mother knew I’d have to learn that lesson. I think she wanted me to hold it in my heart when she couldn’t be there to remind me.”
I feel tears glaze my eyes, too. “Like Nana wanted me to believe that evil doesn’t last, but beauty and love do. She wanted me to remember there can be a happy ending for all of us.”
She smiles at me. “Someday, if I have children of my own, I’ll give my book to them, just like you’ll read Nana’s stories to your baby. We won’t let them ever forget that with love, anything is possible.”
She pulls me into a warm hug, and then in a heartbeat she’s gone. I put my book back on the shelf and reach for a piece of paper I’d left there. I read the list of names on it, then crumple it into a ball. I don’t have any doubts now about what to name my baby. I’ll name her for the most courageous and compassionate women I’ve ever known. The ones who saved my life. The ones who have so much love to give to those of us who are lucky enough to know them.
My baby will never have to feel sorry for who she is. She will spread love and joy, just like her namesakes. My daughter, Catherine Magdalena.
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